EDITOR'S NOTE: This past fall, NFL.com went Back 2 Campus to tell the incredible stories of some of college football's brightest stars, profiling the players before they become household names. This is the 15th in a daily series leading up the scouting combine, where these players will gather and compete for their standing in the 2018 NFL Draft.
It started as a typical phone call, one that Evan Kirk had made hundreds of times before this past summer, when his son, Christian, was preparing for his junior season at Texas A&M. Every weekend Evan and his wife, Melissa, would check in on the oldest of their three children, just to gauge what was happening in his world. This time, however, Evan thought it was important to chat about what awaited the Aggies' star wide receiver this past fall. As Evan well knew, there would be a different set of challenges facing Christian in his third year on campus.
There had been no question about what Christian could do on the field. In his first two seasons of college football, he'd amassed 163 receptions, 1,937 yards and 21 touchdowns, including five scores on punt returns. What Evan wanted to mention, in between the normal chatter about everyday life, was how Christian would handle the increased scrutiny that came with being a star surrounded by less experienced teammates. The Aggies had lost their starting quarterback (Trevor Knight), their best defender (defensive end Myles Garrett) and a host of other key members from an 8-5 team.
Christian understood how the team was changing. Evan just wanted to know if his son was ready for that transition.
"Last season (in 2016), Christian was the face of the offense and Myles was the face of the defense," Evan said recently. "So when I talked to Christian, I said, 'You're probably going to be the face of the team. He told me, 'I know that, Dad, but that's what I'm ready for.' This (position) was something he's been waiting to be in."
Anybody who's spent a significant amount of time around Christian Kirk wouldn't be surprised by that response. He didn't become one of college football's most dynamic talents solely because he's blessed with breathtaking speed, ankle-breaking quickness and the kind of vision that embarrasses potential tacklers. Kirk also has thrived because his head always has been in the right place. He came to A&M looking to make an impact, one that has been so substantial that Alabama head coach Nick Saban said, "Christian Kirk is maybe the most explosive player -- returner, receiver, runner -- of anybody in our league."
Kirk's numbers were slightly down from previous seasons -- he led the Aggies with 71 receptions for 919 yards and 10 touchdowns, finishing with a bang against Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl with 13 catches for 189 yards and three scores. But what was different was the leadership he displayed -- the kind an NFL team will someday soon cherish. Instead of griping about touches, Kirk is helping younger receivers learn the system. He's also spent more time communicating with true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond and addressing the team as a whole. As Kirk told his father a few months earlier, he understood that what he did off the field would mean plenty for his team.
"It's definitely a challenge when you're the one who's receiving a lot of the attention from other teams," said Kirk, who added two more return touchdowns in his final season at A&M, giving him an Aggies-record seven in three years. "The biggest thing is patience and not pressing. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make plays to help us win. The numbers may not be as crazy as they were in the past but that just means I have to work that much harder to get open."
"It's not about us having a young quarterback; it's about us having a young crew around him," A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said in the fall. "Christian has to focus on a lot -- doing his job, setting the pace for everybody else, leading by example, and talking to other players about what they need to do. That can be exhausting for anybody in his position."
Kirk also had to find ways to deliver when his team needed it most. In fact, one of the biggest factors in A&M's 19-17 win over Florida last October was the opportunistic play of the Aggies' star wideout. Kirk only had two receptions for 44 yards but one was a 40-yard catch from Mond that set up a field goal. Even more important was the play he made that set up Daniel LaCamera's game-winning, 32-yard field goal.
Florida coach Jim McElwain had told punter Johnny Townsend to kick away from Kirk all game. However, Townsend's final boot landed in Kirk's hands at the Aggies' 18-yard line with roughly 4:30 left in the contest. Kirk darted right, found a couple of blocks and raced up the sideline. By the time the Gators had tackled him, he had a 43-yard return, his team had the ball on Florida's 39-yard line, and all the momentum had swung in A&M's favor.
That one mistake proved how deadly Kirk can be at any given moment. It's also a testament to his mental toughness. He understands his opportunities to impact a game won't be as plentiful as they have been in the past so he has to capitalize whenever possible. That's a mindset he has worked hard to cultivate, especially since he only has two 100-yard receiving game this year after totaling seven in his first two seasons.
As much as he likes catching passes, Kirk has taken great pride in helping Mond grow.
"I really didn't know what to expect at first," Kirk said. "I would just take time to talk with him about what I see so I could help him get acclimated. We worked together (last) summer doing seven-on-seven (passing drills), getting the timing down, and he's gotten better as he's gotten more game reps. There have been growing pains but we just work through that."
"The hard part for us is managing everybody else's expectations," said Melissa Kirk, Christian's mother. "When it's just us as family, things are OK. We understand the importance of his leadership and communicating with coaches. But then you have all the people on the outside bringing in the negativity, saying things like, 'Why aren't they throwing him the ball?' or 'They're ruining his stats.' We can't protect him from everything but we know he's heard those things. We see how he's impacting the games even when he's not catching the ball."
The great thing about Kirk is there really isn't too much that can dampen his spirits. He came to A&M from Saguaro High in Scottsdale, Ariz., because he wanted the challenge of playing in the Southeastern Conference. Kirk showed up determined to contribute right away and he's thrived as a slot receiver ever since. He's got a knack for understanding the big picture and a gift for keeping his mind focused on whatever he's trying to accomplish.
That's why this past season could be viewed as the most important of Kirk's college career. It gave people a chance to see even more of the substance that complements his style.
"A lot of people want to be great but they don't have the work ethic," Sumlin said. "From the first time I met him, Christian has been surrounded by people who've had a terrific influence on him, including his parents. He understands what it takes to play at a high level, more than any other player I've ever coached. Think about it -- he's in his third year and people act like he's been around here forever."
It's not difficult to see how Kirk became so grounded. Melissa gave birth to him while she was still in school at Arizona State and Evan was starting a business focused around detailing cars. It wasn't uncommon back then for the Kirks to struggle to find money to just survive. What they didn't do in those early years was hide their challenges from their first child.
When Evan and Melissa didn't have enough money for day care, Christian would travel with his father to jobs all around the Phoenix metropolitan area. It didn't matter that Christian was only 4 years old or that he'd have to wake up as early as 5 a.m. to spend 14-hour days in 110-degree heat with his old man. This was what normal looked like for a kid just starting to discover the world around him. The lessons he learned in those early days would form a foundation that would prove invaluable.
As much as Christian gleaned about the importance of attention to detail while watching his father work on cars, he also gained an understanding of how to carry himself.
"The transparency was big," said Melissa, who now works as vice president of technology for a Phoenix-based financial services company. "We didn't hide (the difficulties) from him. There were days when we'd come home and there would be no power or food in the refrigerator. He saw it all. And he learned that good things don't happen overnight."
"I was the oldest child so I grew up around a lot of adults," Kirk said. "If I was around other kids, they were usually three or four years older than me. That (experience) made me learn how to interact with people. Seeing my parents work as hard as they did, it showed me the best way to approach football. I learned that if I wanted something, I had to go out and get it."
Kirk actually first developed a love for the game while hanging out with his father. Since Evan didn't have much money, he'd spend his Sundays walking around a local shopping mall to entertain Christian before going home to watch NFL games. To keep his son engaged, Evan would toss a tiny football back and forth to see if Christian could catch it. It didn't take too long before Evan was putting more heat on his throws and Christian was becoming giddier about showing off his reliable hands.
Christian was just as impressive when, as a 5-year-old, he started playing peewee football. Wearing a jersey that billowed around his knees and a helmet so oversized his parents could barely see his eyes, he started his career playing right tackle. Christian didn???t have much fun at that position -- bigger kids often punched and kicked him when he blocked -- but then the coach moved him to running back later in the year. The first time Christian touched the football, he raced by all the defenders and scored so quickly that his coach looked at Evan and asked, ???Why didn???t you tell me he was that fast????
The jaw-dropping skills Kirk revealed on that day would become his trademark as he grew. His competitiveness also increased as he advanced in the game.
"There were some summers when we would give him time to just be a kid, where he could go skateboard and do whatever he wanted," Evan said. "And then when he would get back into football, he'd be frustrated because some of the other kids had improved. I had to tell him that those kids aren't just waiting for the season to start to get better. They're out there training."
Kirk embraced that message from the first day he started high school. When his parents picked him up after his first training camp as a 150-pound freshman at Saguaro High, they noticed he was a bit frustrated. Once Evan pressed him on the subject, Christian said the camp was fine but that his "blocking apparently sucks." Evan and Melissa didn't see much of Christian the rest of that night, largely because he spent his evening watching YouTube clips of wide receivers blocking, hoping to improve his own technique.
Kirk was just as dedicated to improving as he blossomed into a high school sensation.
"Christian was the first player I ever described as a professional in high school," said Saguaro coach Jason Mohns, who has tutored Kirk since elementary school. "He loved the game but he knew he had to put in the time to be great. He was the first kid I ever had who did pre-hab. He didn't wait to get hurt to get into the training room. He'd be in there early in the mornings to do things to keep himself in great shape."
"I knew I always was blessed to have speed and vision but obviously as other kids got bigger, my size was going to be a factor," added Kirk. "I had to find a way to handle myself out there. I realized that if I worked harder than everyone else, I'd get an edge."
That tenacity helped Kirk become one of the elite high school players in the country. He also played running back and returned kicks for Saguaro, accumulating prolific stats in the process (8,148 all-purpose yards and 102 total touchdowns). The A&M coaches actually learned about him while recruiting another highly touted Scottsdale-area player, quarterback Kyle Allen. When Allen -- who spent two years at A&M before later transferring to Houston -- told the Aggies' coaches about a 10th-grader who was killing it back in Arizona, they didn't really believe all the hype the star quarterback was selling.
Those same coaches changed their tune when they saw Kirk's game film.
"The kid had a 14-minute highlight tape and he was only a sophomore in high school," said A&M special teams coordinator Jeff Banks. "He was scoring on every play. Then we went to watch him practice and he was great there. We watched one tape and half a practice and we were sold."
Kirk hasn't disappointed since signing with A&M. Melissa and Evan admitted they approached his freshman season with the attitude it would be great if Christian played a little and caught a few passes. That was before Christian faced Arizona State in his first college game. He wound up with six receptions for 106 yards in that contest, while scoring on a 79-yard punt return and taking a bubble screen 66 yards for another touchdown. Christian finished that season with 80 receptions, 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns.
Kirk was just as impressive in his sophomore season -- when he tallied 83 receptions for 928 yards and nine scores -- but this past year was all about growth. Banks has seen the way Kirk has attacked the weight room over the last two years, saying, "The physical part of the game is where Christian has really stepped it up. He's wanted to make an impact since the moment he got here, but he's also realized he had to work hard to be available to the team."
Added Sumlin: "Christian was a running back-wide receiver in high school, so the majority of his yards came from catch-and-run plays. He's always been a really strong guy who's hard to tackle, but he was actually built more like a running back than a receiver. Most slot guys in high school are around 170 to 175 pounds and they have to fight to get to 190. That wasn't a problem for him."
As much as Kirk had adjusted to a different role in 2017, that experience could help him at the next level. Last year, Evan told him that playing in the NFL means he might only get "five touches a game when he's been used to getting 10 in college and 20 in high school." Campbell University offensive coordinator David Marsh, a former assistant at both Saguaro and A&M, added that "Christian is taking care of his body all the time. He's already aware that when his skills diminish his ability to know the position will keep him going (in the NFL). He's always willing to do whatever it takes to be the guy."
Last May, Sumlin told the Houston Touchdown Club he believed this would be Kirk's final season in College Station. As it turned out, it was. In three years, he made quite the impact at A&M. The first two were about proving he could be a star on the college level. He used his third to reveal how great a leader he really is.
"I set my goals high," Kirk said. "I had high aspirations coming into college and I wanted to be a player that people talked about. So I look at every day as a chance to get better. And I've seen that when you work hard, it definitely pays off."